By their fruits you shall know them

When I was a seminary student, Dr. David Steinmetz shed light on the practice of executing heretics. If you really believe in hell, he said, and if you believe that people who believe incorrectly will go there, then if someone is leading people astray, then aren’t you justified in ending that person’s earthly life, in order to save countless people’s eternal lives? If the wages of sin are (eternal) death, then the stakes are high, and the use of battle language in a more than metaphorical way is justified.

This perspective unsettled a number of my peers. They believed in hell, and yet were convinced that Lutherans executing Mennonites, or Presbyterians executing Quakers, etc etc, was unconscionable. Were there certain doctrines that they were not taking seriously enough? Maybe there were certain doctrines that were once taken too seriously. But how far could you take it? If a very convincing atheist were turning erstwhile Christians against the church and God, would they kill them? No, not even the atheist, even though they felt such beliefs led straight to hell. But Steinmetz had them wondering, at least for a few days, if they weren’t perhaps being inconsistent. A straight line could be drawn between certain beliefs – beliefs my classmates held – and certain actions – actions they were sure were not “What Jesus Would Do.”

Dr. J. Kameron Carter has argued persuasively that we ought to be suspicious of a theology that allows – or perhaps even requires, if practiced consistently – actions that are clearly repugnant and counter to the message of the Gospel. His particular concern is racism/slavery/genocide as practiced by devout individuals with the blessing of the church, beginning in the late middle ages, but he can find plenty of other examples of problematic theology being revealed in problematic practice. If pressed to encapsulate his theological project in a single verse of scripture, I would make the case for Matthew 7:16 – “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Full passage here, with parallels here and here.)

I thought about Dr. Carter a lot as I read the second half of Jesus Land. (See my review of Part One of that book here.)  Escuela Caribe is a sufficient critique of a certain brand of evangelicalism. It cannot be written off as the nightmare of a single crazy individual, as they seemed to have no problem finding “Christian” staff to keep the place going. The abuse and dehumanization was seemingly endless. The staff did all they could to “break down” the miscreant students, and to discourage community. Instead, they cultivated an atmosphere of dishonesty and mistrust — a competitive, rather than cooperative system. They justified all of this because they were, in their minds, saving the souls of the teenagers who were sent to them. But instead, they were turning them from Christ, and damaging their ability to form healthy relationships with other people.

Julia Scheeres was not in the business of writing a theological critique of her time at this school in the Dominican Republic. However, I found myself asking, What was wrong with the theology of those who founded and ran the school that allowed them to treat these teenagers so abysmally? Was it their emphasis on individual salvation – on Christianity as an individual decision for Christ rather than a community practice? Or was it a failure in their understanding of love – that loving entails knowing another, understanding another – and that means first listening to and attending to the other? Did they view forgiveness as conditional on our repentance, as opposed to something that is freely available to all? Perhaps all of these things and more.

Scheeres writes in the epilogue of a return visit she made to the school:
“‘What’s the most important lesson you learned at Escuela Caribe?’ one of [the staff] asked me with a smug smile.
“‘Not to trust people,’ I answered without hesitation.”

What’s the most important lesson that others will learn from us?

While there are many who bemoan that Christians are still so divided (and I have been known to be among them), the seemingly small details that divide us are not always indifferent matters. There are some beliefs that make all the difference in the fruit that we bear – the witness that we bear in the world.

Children’s Bible Stories?

A year ago, a little girl told my (non-church-going) niece that she was going to Hell because she didn’t know a particular Bible story. This has all worked itself out in the meantime, with the two little girls each coming to a broader understanding of the world, and becoming friends. But one lingering effect of the initial trauma has been my niece’s conviction that in order to understand certain people, she is going to need to know about the Bible.
I would know just how to proceed if she were 14. But from what I have been able to see, the quality of younger children’s Bible story books is, at best, inadequate. Story lines are altered to suit rhyming schemes, works righteousness abounds, God is everywhere “He,” and the single thrust of most every story is that it is our bounden duty to tell everyone that Christ died to save them from damnation – even if the story is from the Old Testament. (See, for instance, Arch Books’ Zerubbabel Rebuilds the Temple.)
This may be an evangelical strategy, but it seems doomed to be an evangelistically ineffective one – families who are not churchgoers are going to be so turned off by these stories that they wash their hands of the Bible entirely and move on to Old Turtle. And so I had been fantasizing about writing my own series of children’s picture books from the Bible – that this might not be another lost opportunity to introduce children to Christianity.
It is a popular argument that the Bible is not particularly kid friendly. The stories we tell to children from the Old Testament are almost comically grim: the expulsion from the Garden, David killing and decapitating Goliath, Jonah swallowed by a giant fish, Ananias and Sapphira struck dead for lying… “Noah’s Ark” is a great example of this – not in reality a story mainly about a bunch of animals living peaceably together on a dear little wooden ship, but unavoidably a story about the death of all humanity except for 8 people (and all of the arguably blameless animals but two (or 7) of each species) at the hands of an angry God.

But even this is nothing compared to the stories we dare not tell children – Tamara raped by her brother, Jezebel torn apart by dogs… so I have begun to agree that perhaps the Bible really is not a book for children. My niece is right to think that the Bible is an essential book, but perhaps wrong to consider that she therefore needs to know all about it right now, as a second-grader. I hope that one day she reads Crime and Punishment, too, but by “one day” I mean “when she is sixteen or older” – and again every five to ten years. I am not in the meantime frantically scouring bookstores for the storybook version.
The Bible is a diverse collection of texts, so naturally there are passages which I would except from my “this is no book for children” dictum – but most of them are not the narratives. For instance, I recently came across a beautiful rendering of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 for children (To Everything There is a Season, by Jude Daly.) Certain Psalms would lend themselves to this sort of treatment, certain sayings of Jesus and passages from Paul and Isaiah.

But on the whole it seems that we are more in need of Tolkien-esque authors – writers who can write stories that illustrate the themes and truths of Christianity in new settings – settings that do not necessarily invoke Christ, but rather evoke Christianity.
What do you think? Are Biblical narratives suitable for children? What are some of your recommendations for books for readers under 10? Not only Bible stories, but also those books which point towards the insights of the Christian faith?

Could my tears forever flow…

These days, I am up to my ears in John Wesley’s economic theology, preparing for a series of Sunday school classes on the topic. I am scratching the old itch — what does following Christ mean in detail, in how I eat, how I shop, how I give…

This was an all consuming issue back in the days before I had a sense that God’s love was not something that I needed to earn (thanks for the big kick in the pants, Robert Farrar Capon!), but I still have a strong sense that grace is not an absolution from working the details out.

For years, I have used the analogy of my marriage to talk about the grace/works relationship: Brian’s love is not contingent upon me doing housework. Which was such a relief to me that I went a couple of years without doing the dishes. I guess I was sort of testing the theory. But one day, I just had the urge to do the dishes – as a response to the kind of love that did not require me to do them. And as the years have gone by, as I have grown into the assurance that Brian’s love is not contingent upon my housewifery, I have been freed to do things around the house because to do them makes our lives better – in our marriage, when I fold laundry or wash dishes or tidy the living room, I am acting out of love instead of fear, out of freedom instead of bondage.

But all this Wesley had me wondering if God does not in fact require me to do the dishes, so to speak. And this crisis is (for the first time for this Wesley acolyte) making me see the point of some of his contemporary critics, including Augustus Toplady, who apparently wrote “Rock of Ages” as a sort of anti-Wesley protest song. Which is sort of ridiculous, since it is not like Wesley did not believe that we were saved by grace, right? Right? Poor guy – the answer to that appears to have even been a head- scratcher for Wesley himself, at times.

CAKE has a song that begins, “Jesus wrote a blank check, one I haven’t cashed yet…” When I hear it, I think of those checks that, right below the endorsement line, have something to the effect of, “by signing this, you are agreeing to…” There is so much disagreement about what would follow the ellipsis on the back of Jesus’ blank check – just what are we agreeing to when we endorse it? What would it mean to cash this check? No wonder there are so many who are wary, who are not interested in cashing that check – at least not yet.

The Bible could be more transparent here. Many love to point to John 3:16 – “whosoever believes in him…” But what does that mean? What does believing in Jesus really entail? Believe what about Jesus? That Jesus is God incarnate? And if Jesus is God, shouldn’t believing in him, I don’t know, mean something? Like maybe we should pay attention to some of the stuff he said we should be doing with our lives. And if those who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true want to put their money where their mouth is, then I double dog dare them to take every teaching of Jesus’ at face value. Like not storing up treasures on earth, for instance. This is a big one for Wesley, by the way. According to Wesley, the rich are those who have something more than adequate food and clothing to their names. Televisions? Computers? CD players? Forget about it – a rocking chair is decadent by Wesley’s standards.

The thing is, if faith without consistently following Jesus’ teachings is not faith at all, and if there really is a hell to which unrepentant sinners are consigned, then it is hard to believe that as many as 144,000 could escape it. Roger Williams is more likely to be right – it will just be him, with the rest of us burning like those magic birthday candles that cannot be blown out.